Dawes Act

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The Dawes General Allotment Act was enacted by the U.S. Congress regarding the distribution of land to Native Americans in Oklahoma. It was signed into law February 8, 1887. Named after its sponsor, U.S. Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, the act was amended in 1891 and again in 1906 by the Burke Act. The act remained in effect until 1934. The act provided for the division of tribally held lands into individually-owned parcels and opening "surplus" lands to settlement by non-Indians and development by railroads.[1]



The Dawes Act, with its emphasis on individual land ownership, also had a negative impact on the unity, self-government, and culture of Native American tribes.[2]

By dividing reservation lands into privately owned parcels, legislators hoped to complete the assimilation process by forcing the deterioration of the communal life-style of the Native societies and imposing Western-oriented values of strengthening the nuclear family and values of economic dependency strictly within this small household unit.[3]

The land granted to most allottees was not sufficient for economic viability, and division of land between heirs upon the allottees' deaths resulted in land fractionalization. Most allotment land, which could be sold after a statutory period of 25 years, was eventually sold to non-Native buyers at bargain prices. Additionally, land deemed to be "surplus" beyond what was needed for allotment was opened to white settlers, though the profits from the sales of these lands were often invested in programs meant to aid the American Indians. Native Americans lost, over the 47 years of the Act's life, about 90 million acres (360,000 km²) of treaty land, or about two-thirds of the 1887 land base. About 90,000 Native Americans were made landless.[2]

In 1906 the Burke Act (also known as the forced patenting act) further amended the GAA to give the Secretary of the Interior the power to issue allotees a patent in fee simple to people classified ‘competent and capable.’ The criteria for this determination is unclear but meant that allotees deemed ‘competent’ by the Secretary of the Interior would have their land taken out of trust status, subject to taxation, and could be sold by the allottee. The allotted lands of Indians determined to be incompetent by the Secretary of the Interior were automatically leased out by the Federal Government.[4] The act reads:

...the Secretary of the Interior may, in his discretion, and he is hereby authorized, whenever he shall be satisfied that any Indian allottee is competent and capable of managing his or her affairs at any time to cause to be issued to such allottee a patent in fee simple, and thereafter all restrictions as to sale, encumbrance, or taxation of said land shall be removed.

The use of competence opens up the categorization, making it much more subjective and thus increasing the exclusionary power of the Secretary of Interior. Although this act gives power to the allottee decide whether to keep or sell the land, provided the harsh economic reality of the time, lack of access to credit and markets, liquidation of Indian lands was almost inevitable. It was known by the department of interior that virtually 95% of fee patented land would eventually be sold to whites.[5]

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